Bad Vibrations

Sweet and loathsome: Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath whips the crowd into a pallid indifference.

My original New Year's Eve plan was to be in Redondo Beach, California, to see a rare solo performance by Beach Boy legend Brian Wilson. In my naiveté, I thought that ringing in the new millennium with a concert by a man whose music has been a symbol of all that is hopeful, gentle and sweetly melancholy would be the perfect antidote to a torrent of apocalyptic hysteria.

But before I could make a break for the state line, my bosses here at New Times suggested that if I wanted to, um, continue to receive a paycheck, it would be a good idea if I ventured into downtown Tempe to cover the city's much-hyped celebration. Being the dutiful employee that I am, I scrapped my plans and left late Friday afternoon for the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Block Party armed with a media credential and a feeling of dread, the kind that I get whenever my senses are bombarded with images deifying a brand of corn chips.

I'm quite willing to allow for the possibility that human suffering can be eradicated if people would just ingest copious amounts of zesty Tostitos chips and salsa. It's just that I've always found it disturbing that Tempe's power brokers decided to sell their souls -- and the city's image -- to the folks at Frito-Lay.

The deal has paid off handsomely. No less a cultural authority than USA Today ranked Tempe as one of the top eight places in the nation to celebrate this epochal New Year's Eve. Despite the seal of approval from McPaper, it's more than a little insulting to watch the good name of this once quiet college town pimped out to the same geniuses who brought us chili-cheese Fritos. I can't be the only one who finds it puerile that the symbolic marking of the passage of time and history has been reduced to the act of dipping a chip. This ridiculous ceremony is apparently a conceit to the same demographic that's entertained by Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?.

Nevertheless, I crossed the inflatable threshold on Seventh Street with all that sequestered firmly in the back of my brain. I was here to have fun, to enjoy the festivities and report on all the glitz and glamour. After all, how bad could it be?

I started northbound up Mill Avenue, excuse me, Millennium Avenue, to catch all the musical entertainment that Block Party organizers had deigned to offer the hand-stamped masses.

Making the rounds of the country, alternative and Hispanic music stages, I found myself momentarily drawn to the classic rock stage -- although "classic rock" was a misnomer in this case. Imagine the sounds of REO Speedwagon and Foreigner filtered back through a postalternative prism, complete with all the stammering and squelching that made second- and third-generation grunge so unlistenable. Most of these bands would be spending the average Friday wanking in front of a few disinterested patrons at a Famous Sam's. But on this night they had the good fortune to wank unmercifully in front of a few thousand disinterested passers-by.

For music fans, the Tempe event's artistic depth was equivalent to that of a kiddy pool. But judging by the abysmal turnout for the competing downtown Phoenix bash, hiring a bunch of costly, big-name acts is hardly the secret. It seems that the Block Party organizers know the whims of the masses better: "Build it, no matter how crappy it is, and they will come."

As someone who's always been fascinated with the "cover band" phenomenon -- a movement that seems to be growing in strength and popularity in the Valley -- I was at turns revolted and intrigued by the likes of the Chadwicks and Shirley's Temple. But watching a group of Martini Ranch refugees shriek through Alanis Morissette covers without a trace of irony was simply more than I could bear.

Crowd-watching proved to be the most rewarding endeavor. The Block Party patrons were a solid cross section of out-of-towners, kids and typical New Year's revelers. I began to wonder how the event was playing in their eyes as a representation of Tempe. As a habitué, I was less bothered, or at least surprised, than some patrons by the ominous presence of mounted police and bike cops wielding mace and pepper spray, or the oppressive spotlights that have become a common sight on Mill. Both are weekly fixtures, part of police efforts to keep the throngs of (predominantly minority) youth form congealing. This night was no different. It was obvious that even with a reported quarter of a million people to watch, authorities were keeping the closest tabs on people with backward baseball caps, baggy jeans or dark complexions.

While shopping at Zia Record Exchange earlier in the day, I had managed to hear Billy Idol's two-song sound check and, frankly, that was more than enough to satisfy my Idol jones well into the next millennium. However, the aging bleached blond proved that he wasn't quite the self-serious has-been I'd imagined, poking fun at himself as he came onstage behind a walker, which he quickly proceeded to dump, launching into a solid, if predictable, runthrough of his greatest hits. Thankfully, Idol elected not to destroy what remaining goodwill I had left toward him by eviscerating any songs from his Generation X days.  

The genuine highlight of the set was seeing Idol reunited with his longtime guitarist, Steve Stevens. Happily, Stevens' fretwork erased my last memory of him performing in the Valley, in 1995, as a member of Mötley Crüe flabster Vince Neil's solo outfit.

The crowd lapped up Idol's act, much more so than the unimpressed throng gathered at the Beach Park to see the evening's other big-name act, Sugar Ray.

For those not familiar with the band (and if you number yourself among them, consider it a stroke of good luck), the group specializes in a brand of wistful pap designed to appeal to female mall rats who find the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit too strident. Lacking even the anima of rap-metal, Sugar Ray's success is the best example of the current shallowness of commercial music.

Pretty boy front man Mark McGrath's "heartfelt" shout-outs to those whom he had "lost" was an act of such calculated insincerity that I wondered how the audience, or the band, for that matter, kept from laughing.

Meanwhile, local alterna-hop stylists the Phunk Junkeez acquitted themselves nicely with an energetic set at Hayden Square that stole Sugar Ray's thunder.

The idea of the teen bluesman is a concept I have not yet convinced myself to appreciate, but young guitar virtuoso Jeff Simo's Centerpoint stage effort was also engaging.

What consolation I found in those performances quickly dissipated as I made my way back down Mill, weaving through the crush of drunken partyers. As I looked closely, I began to realize that I was not merely witnessing the future of New Year's Eve in Tempe, but the future of Mill Avenue itself.

I needn't have looked further than the newly opened Have a Nice Day restaurant, a '70s-themed chain eatery and nightclub capitalizing on Americans' unfathomable nostalgia for bell bottoms and disco. Or perhaps it was the phalanx of new stores farther down the block, Abercrombie & Fitch, Sunglass Hut, neither of which was here during last year's Block Party. Or perhaps it was the cavernous hole on the corner of Seventh, a construction site that will soon house a multistory retail and office complex.

But more than what was new, I started to think about what was missing -- The Mill Avenue Spaghetti Company, Changing Hands Bookstore -- and wondered how long it would be before there was a Planet Hollywood or a Borders built to take their place.

If spending the last night of the century on Mill taught me anything, it was that the corporate hegemony is complete. Perhaps such a fate was inevitable, something that no amount of indignation, however righteous, could change. But the real question to be answered is, "Does anybody want this?" For those who stand to benefit financially -- the city, the corporations, the parking lot owners -- the response is obvious. But for the rest of us, the ones who live, shop and work here, the answer is a resounding no.

As it began to near midnight, I knew I had to escape. But where to go? Independent stalwarts such as Long Wong's had the good sense to close for the night, or in the case of the Six East Lounge, get demolished before the celebration.

The only option left was to forsake Mill and walk two blocks east to Cannery Row. Once a frat-boy haven, the bar has become an unofficial home to the burgeoning East Valley punk movement. Because of its sporadic hours of operation and informal setup, it's less a traditional watering hole than a hangout -- a proletarian social club of sorts.

Greeted by the owner as I arrived, I noticed there were few patrons, and I wondered if I had made a mistake, if I would spend the rest of my life recounting how I had spent the last moments of the century drinking Natural Light with three people I didn't know.

But then the place began to fill. Some were friends, others casual acquaintances, but most were total strangers. These were disenfranchised locals, not just punks and hipsters, but regular people from the surrounding neighborhoods, all looking for a place to go, to feel a part of a city and a community that had been usurped from them.  

A spirit of camaraderie welled up. Soon the room was filled in a flurry of streamers and silly string; the celebratory din of party favors ringing out. Beer was served ice cold and from a can, while the stereo, ironically, began blasting the Beach Boys.

I had found my nirvana.

Amid the crass commercialism, I had stumbled upon an oasis. There was no pretense.

The rest of the night was spent in a jubilant haze: making champagne toasts to "Fun, Fun, Fun" and slow-dancing to "Surfer Girl."

At midnight, we gathered around the television watching as the seconds were counted down onstage by Sugar Ray. I felt something close to pity for the people pressed against the stage and out on Mill. Then I realized that I should reserve some pity for myself. I, too, had been anesthetized to the reality of what was happening in my own backyard. I had been clinging to a false notion that the gentrification of Mill Avenue could somehow be averted. What the last six hours had taught me -- and what crystallized for me in that moment -- was that it couldn't.

So that's how the millennium culminated, with an epiphany. Mill Avenue -- the place of such potential and charm that I had first encountered a decade ago -- was gone, if not physically, then at least in spirit.

As someone who left his home and family because he was genuinely attracted by the promise of living in downtown Tempe, it was a difficult truth to confront. But the reality is that Mill Avenue has no real future. To paraphrase one great social chronicler of the punk variety, its future dream really is a shopping scheme.

The lesson I took away from Cannery Row was that there will always be pockets of resistance; always some glimmer of hope. If New Year's Eve is ostensibly a celebration of life and the promise of the future, then the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Block Party did not completely destroy my optimism.

The hope for love, happiness and community will always be there, even if the old Mill Avenue isn't.

Contact Bob Mehr at his online address:

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